Richard North, 01/08/2021  

A puzzling aspect of yesterday's "cash for access" story, which I picked up from the Financial Times was the apparent lack of interest shown by the rest of the media. Apart from the Guardian and the Independent covered the report, and then without any great emphasis.

Today, though, all this changes, with the Sunday Times running the story on its front page, with three major reports (paywall), that have already been picked up by the Mail as well as others.

Moreover, in the ST, the issue has acquired a label – an essential characteristic if it is to acquire "legs". It has become the: "access capitalism" scandal.

Initially, the paper frames the story in terms of the egregious Ben Elliot and Prince Charles, with its first report entitled: "Tory chairman Ben Elliot 'peddled access to Prince Charles'", but with the mention of Elliot's day job, up front, the party political dimension isn't very far behind.

What becomes very clear is that the paper is very sure of its ground. It has enlisted Mohamed Amersi, the telecoms millionaire, as a source but also refers to an aristocratic "whistleblower" and a number of supporting documents and leaked e-mail. The establishment (or part of it) seems to be turning in on itself.

Much of what the ST rehearses, though, has already been covered in the Financial Times, although the Sunday paper seems to be gunning for Elliot and his role in Quintessentially, suggesting that the revelations "will raise serious doubts at the apex of the establishment about Elliot's conduct and pose the uncomfortable question of whether he has used his royal relations to bolster his business and his political position".

Amersi has gone public in a big way, having given the paper a video interview, and it is he who describes this current round of "cash for access" as "access capitalism", which the ST thinks will impact on Prince Charles, posing "difficult questions" as to whether he knew that his wife’s nephew was organising for ultra-wealthy clients to meet him.

Asked if Elliot was in effect operating a pay-to-play scheme, Amersi replied: "You call it pay-to-play, I call it access capitalism. It's the same point. You get access, you get invitations, you get privileged relationships if you are part of the set-up, and where you are financially making a contribution to be a part of that set up. Absolutely".

As one might expect, Labour is doing its best to capitalise on the revelations, picking up on the detail of the "advisory board" whereby donors, some of whom have given more than £250,000 to the party, hold meetings with Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor.

Labour Party chairwoman Anneliese Dodds is leading the charge here and, I suppose, if anything kills this story stone dead, it will be her intervention. She is questioning whether Elliot was doing enough to keep his political and royal worlds separate.

"The latest allegations about Ben Elliot", she says, "reveal the true scale of the 'cash for access' culture there is under Boris Johnson. It cannot be right that Ben Elliot is offering a select group of elite donors privileged access to the prime minister and the chancellor".

She then continues: "And if the inducements to donate to the Conservative Party or become a client of Quintessentially include professing to offer access to the royal family then that is totally unacceptable. So if this has happened then Ben Elliot's position is completely untenable and Boris Johnson has serious questions to answer".

Much of what is said of Prince Charles can be dismissed as just another part of the increasingly tawdry royal soap, so the real damaging stuff will relate to Elliot's role as Tory Party co-chairman.

Amersi suggests that the politics and the royals are closely inter-linked. He tells how he decided soon after becoming a Quintessentially member to pay for the elite tier, the most expensive and most exclusive of three options.

"We decided to be at the very top tier. This very top tier, it was fascinating because we were invited to be exposed to the establishment here, whether it is the royal establishment, Clarence House, St James’s Palace, Buckingham Palace, Dumfries House, whether it is the government and No 10 and other influential aspects of government".

The ST says that documents suggest Elliot used his royal connections to bolster his political fundraising. In one email sent in 2015 — four years before he became Conservative Party chairman — Elliot told Amersi that Charles "spoke highly of you", before requesting a donation to Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative minister and his close friend.

The paper also reminds us that Elliot has already been touched by two major funding scandals. Last year, it says, he faced questions over why he allowed the billionaire Richard Desmond to be seated next to Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, at a fundraiser shortly before the government ruled on Desmond's development plans.

Then, earlier this year, leaked emails relating to the prime minister's controversial refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, showed that Elliot was copied into crucial emails discussing ways party donations could be used for the redecorations.

In effect, Elliot is accused of linking politics, business and royalty. This comes over more in the second report, where Elliot appeared relaxed about the overlap between his three worlds.

The paper describes how, in February 2015 he wrote an email to Amersi with the subject line: "Zac". He opened with a remarkable sweetener: "Dear Mohamed, Hope you are well. I saw the Prince of Wales this morning and he spoke highly of you", before getting to the political point.

"I know we have a meeting set to see Zac", the e-mail continued, "but we are just following up on all of the kind pledges made at the event the other week, so I wanted to get in touch briefly about this. Thank you again for this generous donation to his campaign and let me know the best way forward".

And, as we already know, Elliot would go on to be treasurer of Goldsmith's failed campaign to succeed Johnson in the mayoralty. Then, as soon as he became prime minister, Johnson looked to him to rebuild the party’s straitened finances.

Since then, as the FT recorded, Elliot raised phenomenal sums for the Tories. In the year running up to the 2019 election landslide, the party brought in a record £37.4 million in large donations. But, we are told, Tory backbenchers have quietly wondered whether he has the temperament and caution to do the job, not least because of his involvement in the Jenrick, and the "wallpapergate" affairs.

With the intervention of the ST, though, the big question is whether, is this "access capitalism" scandal takes off, whether it embroils mainly Prince Charles, or also takes in prime minister Johnson, and makes is life more uncomfortable.

With the public so inured to "Tory sleaze", and having already priced-in the fact that they have a congenital liar for a prime minister, it would be unlikely for a single scandal, in isolation, to end his government – or even seriously damage it.

Generally, it is the accumulation of events over time that does the damage. Thus, in 1992 we saw John Major's Tories elected with a record vote. Five years later, after a succession of "sleaze" stories, Blair swept to victory with the 1997 landslide.

We are just under three years (potentially) from a general election. It is only going to get worse for Johnson. Some believe it will be a miracle for him if he isn't deposed by his own party before that election.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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